Book Review: What Is Film Noir? by William Park

Unimpressed with recent neo-noir films, William Park, author of the new book "What Is Film Noir?" (2011), confesses: "As much as I admire 'Chinatown' I come away disappointed that John Huston can get away with incest and murder. I thought 'The Long Goodbye' the very worst of all Raymond Chandler's adaptations. And I detested the triumph of evil in 'Se7en'." Park also doesn't understand Camille Paglia's admiration of 'Basic Instinct', criticising the amount of moral pollution enclosed in Verhoeven's film.

Brian De Palma expressed a similar opinion to Park's: "I think traditional noir doesn't work in contemporary storytelling because we don't live in that world anymore."

Through its eight chapters — "Theory of Genre", "Film Noir: The Genre Defined", "Objections", "Style", "Period Style", "Alfred Hitchcock", "Meanings", "Last Words" — and three appendices: "Within the Genre", "Borderline" and "Period Pieces", Park dissects with academic detail the definition of the noir film as genre and style and its progression during the Golden Age (1940-1958).

"Film noir is unique in film history as being the only genre that was also a style. Components of the style existed in the silent era, notably in the German films of the 1920s. Orson Welles also brought them together in 'Citizen Kane' (1941)", confirmed by historian Eddie Muller (author of 'Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir', and 'Dark City Dames: The Wicked Women of Film Noir'): "Citizen Kane forever changed the grammar of motion picture storytelling and set the cinematic syntax for film noir: the shadowy quest for truth in morally ambiguous terrain." Yet despite being the chief model for all that followed in the genre, 'Citizen Kane' rarely is classified as noir.

Park explains that Hitchcock is often excluded from this list on the basis that his films lack the integration provided by voiceovers and flashbacks. But if we think of the canonized noir which lack these two elements we have: 'The Maltese Falcon', 'The Asphalt Jungle', 'The Big Combo', 'The Big Sleep', 'The Dark Corner', 'Fallen Angel', 'In a Lonely Place', 'Kiss Me Deadly', 'Scarlet Street', 'This Gun for Hire', 'Woman in the Window' and 'Touch of Evil'.

Park also cites Paul Schrader's essay "Notes on Film Noir": "... most every dramatic Hollywood film from 1941 to 1953 contains some noir elements", and some of these "one-shots" were terrific: Edmund Goulding's adaptation of 'Nightmare Alley', Frank Borzage's 'Moonrise', Lewis Milestone's 'The Strange Love of Martha Ivers' and Fred Zinnemann's 'Act of Violence' were made by directors who had never been previously associated with film noir.

Fritz Lang's 'The Blue Gardenia' (1953), while not quite a noir, morphs into a tale of romantic despair (the Wagnerian theme of Tristan und Isolde) and an exploration of America's obsession with pulp, tabloids and personal violence, starring Anne Baxter as telephone operator in fear of becoming a murderess.

The heroes in the classic noir tended to be cynical, tough, and overwhelmed by sinister forces beyond their control. Although most of the settings in the noir were urban spaces in the downtowns of big cities (Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Chicago), they appeared in exotic enclaves too, i.e. in 'Cornered' (1945) directed by Edward Dymytrk: Dick Powell is an ex-POW who acts relentless and ends harming some of the good guys before killing in self-defense a Nazi collaborator. Buenos Aires is here the Dark City.

In Appendix A, Park categorizes in his list Within the Genre the films that established their plots immersed entirely in the noir concept, such as 'Criss Cross' (1949): directed by Robert Siodmak, shot almost entirely in the day, as dark as it gets, with multiple double-crosses, flashbacks, the iconic Dan Duryea, a genuine femme fatale (Yvonne De Carlo) and a script to die for.

"What Is Film Noir?" is a highly recommended reading for fans of the genre who want to elucidate their doubts about the categories and context their favorite noir films belong to.

In this Dark Land the usual suspects who inhabitated their shady alleys and seedy dives were actors such as Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Alan Ladd, Edward G. Robinson, John Garfield, Dana Andrews, Dan Duryea, Richard Widmark, Sterling Hayden, Elisha Cook Jr., Richard Conte, Raymond Burr, Dennis O'Keefe, Lawrence Tierney, Victor Mature, etc.

John Garfield and Lilli Palmer in "Body and Soul" (1947)

As wicked femmes, some of the actresses who impressively played these eternal dames were: Claire Trevor (The Queen of Noir), Gloria Grahame, Barbara Stanwyck, Rita Hayworth, Lauren Bacall, Audrey Totter, Ida Lupino, Mary Astor, Lizabeth Scott, Joan Bennett, Marie Windsor, Jane Greer, Rhonda Fleming, Jean Peters, Coleen Gray, Mary Beth Hughes, etc.

As a colophon, a video-compilation of vintage stills of actors and actresses that include: Ann Savage, Tom Neal, Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Lana Turner, John Garfield, Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas, Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine, James Stewart, Jean Harlow, Gene Tierney, Ida Lupino, Irene Manning, Ava Gardner, Lawrence Tierney, Ann Jeffreys, Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth, Mary Astor, Lizabeth Scott, Peggy Cummins, Veronica Lake, Alan Ladd, Glenn Ford, Cornel Wilde, Helen Stanton, Linda Darnell, Marlon Brando, Van Heflin, Evelyn Keyes, Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Joan Bennett, Edward G. Robinson, Dan Duryea, Dorothy Lamour.

Plus: Sterling Hayden, Shelley Winters, Barbara Stanwyck, Jayne Mansfield, June Vincent, Yvonne De Carlo, Robert Mitchum, Deanna Durbin, Dick Powell, Rhonda Fleming, Ann Sheridan, James Cagney, Priscilla Lane, Marsha Hunt, Mary Beth Hughes, Claire Trevor, Dennis O'Keefe, Fred MacMurray, Robert Ryan, Jean Gabin, Mamie Van Doren, Faith Domergue, Jean Gillie, Marie Windsor, Victor Mature, Diana Dors, Audrey Totter, Kim Novak, Hedy Lamarr, Sylvia Sidney, Jeanne Crain, Jan Sterling, Dolores Moran, Gail Patrick, Martha Vickers, Ann Dvorak, Virginia Grey, Barbara Payton, Ramsay Ames.

Classic/Noir Films include Detour, From Here to Eternity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Out of the Past, In a Lonely Place, Suspicion, Laura, High Sierra, The Big Shot, The Killers, Step by Step, The Lady from Shangai, The Maltese Falcon, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Dark City, The Company She Keeps, I Walk Alone, Desert Fury, Gun Crazy, The Blue Dahlia, Gilda, The Big Combo, Fallen Angel, The Wild One, The Prowler, Touch of Evil, Scarlet Street, Manhandled, Too Late for Tears, Johnny Stool Pigeon, Ball of Fire, The Burglar, Black Angel, The Woman in the Window, Criss Cross, Macao, Lady on a Train, Cry Danger, They Drive by Night, The Bad and the Beautiful, The Roaring Twenties, Winner Take All, Kid Glove Killer, The Great Flamarion, Murder My Sweet, Raw Deal, Double Indemnity, On Dangerous Ground, Moontide, Naked Alibi, The Racket, My Forbidden Past, Where Danger Lies, Decoy, Dead End, The Two Mrs. Carrolls, The Killing, Human Desire, The Long Haul, Lady in the Lake, Vertigo, etc.

Article first published as Book Review: What Is Film Noir? by William Park on Blogcritics.